NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
Verses 15-16a: Then, the Pharisees walked out of the Temple court where Jesus was teaching so they could hatch a plot to catch Him saying something wrong. Once they came up with a plan, they sent some men to Jesus. They were several of their own followers, along with some from the group called Herodians.
HERODIANS: A Priestly party under the reign of King Herod and his successors; called by the Rabbis “Boethusians,” as adherents of the family of a priest named Simon son of Boethus from Alexandria, Egypt. Some sources say that Boethus was made high priest around 25 BC by Herod the Great in order that his marriage to Boethus’ daughter, Mariamne, might not be regarded as a mésalliance – a marriage with a person thought to be unsuitable or of a lower social position. This made the Herodians the most politically oriented Jewish group that Jesus encountered. They were likely to one who brought it to Pilate’s attention that Jesus was being touted as the new King of the Jews.
Flavius Josephus makes this observation about Boethus‘ daughter, Mariamne, “This man [Boethus] had a daughter, who was esteemed the most beautiful woman of that time; and when the people of Jerusalem began to speak much in her commendation, it happened that Herod was much affected with what was said of her; and when he saw the damsel, he was smitten with her beauty.”1 Josephus goes on to say, “And when Agrippa had entirely finished all the duties of the Divine worship, he removed Theophilus, the son of Ananus, from the high priesthood, and bestowed that honor on Simon the son of Boethus, whose name was also Cantheras whose daughter king Herod married…Simon, therefore, had the [high] priesthood with his brethren, and with his father, in like manner as the sons of Simon, the son of Onias, who were three, had it formerly under the government of the Macedonians.”2
The Herodians followed the Sadducees in their opposition to the Pharisees, and were therefore often identified with them. The hatred of the Pharisees toward this high-priestly family is shown by the words of the Tanna Abba Saul ben Baṭnit, who lived about the year 40 AD in Jerusalem. It must be especially noted, that “the house of Boethus” heads the list of the wicked and sinful priestly families enumerated by Abba. In Jewish writings we find this said about them: “And it was of these and of such as these that Abba Saul ben Bothnith said in the name of Abba Joseph ben Hanin: ‘Woe is me because of the house of Boethus; woe is me because of their staves! Woe is me because of the house of Hanin, woe is me because of their whisperings! Woe is me because of the house of Kathros, woe is me because of their pens! Woe is me because of the house of Ishmael the son of Phabi, woe is me because of their fists! For they are High Priests and their sons are [Temple] treasurers and their sons-in-law are trustees and their servants beat the people with staves.’”3
They were known for their sensuality and corrupt living, and were supporters of the policies and government of the Herodian family. As such, they were a political rather than religious party. They were very friendly with Herod the Great and with his dynasty. For them, there was no such thing as separation of church and state. But what they were good at, was setting someone up with flattery in order to knock them down with disdain. But Jesus knew they were of the same ilk as those who tormented His royal ancestor, David: “My enemies never tell the truth. They only want to destroy people. Their words come from mouths that are like open graves. They use their lying tongues to deceive others.”4 And as David said about another foe, “His words about getting along are as smooth as butter, but he has only fighting on his mind. His words are as slick as grease, yet they cut like a knife.”5 But Solomon puts it in perspective, “If you give false praise to others in order to get what you want, you are only setting a trap for yourself.”6 This tendency has without doubt metastasized over the centuries into the bone and marrow of modern day politicians.
As part of their false praise, the Herodians tried to compare Jesus to Elihu who counseled Job, “I will treat you the same as I would treat anyone else. I will not praise you to win your favor. I cannot treat one person better than another.”7 But in fact, they were really saying is this: “You don’t live the way we think you should. You have not accepted our teachings. So we will cause people to hate you and decide that you are worth nothing.”8 However, the Herodians learned quickly that flattery did not work when setting Jesus up for an embarrassing prank. Nevertheless, our Lord chose not to disregard this praise completely, even though it was used beguilingly. It has been said, that 75% of most hyperbolas are based on a truth. If Jesus was in fact 75% of what they were saying about Him here, it still would make Him 100% better than any of them.
We find a number of references in the Jewish Mishnah and Talmud about one of Herod’s hobbies, he liked raising doves. As a matter of fact, they became known as “Herodian doves.”9 He built many dove-courts to house them, and they were considered tame pigeons that one might use to send messages.10 We may use this metaphor to describe these Herodians who were sent to Jesus with a message intended to catch Him in a misspeak or insult to Caesar. In Jewish genealogy we find one of these Herodians named Menahem, who, along with eighty other men dressed in gold, served king Herod from the time he was young. He stayed with king Herod 37 years and accumulated great wealth.11 So politically speaking, they had great influence in the palace of the king.
One early church scholar gives his commentary on this planned attack by the Herodians. He says: “The truth frequently confounds every evil intention but without the intention being thereby reformed. This is especially true of those who intentionally sin by malice rather than out of ignorance. For example, the priests of the old covenant were unable to intimidate the Lord when they asked him, ‘By what authority do you do these things?’12 And after the force of His parables further frustrated them, they passed judgment on themselves by saying, ‘He will utterly destroy those wretches.13 Since no one bore witness against them, it had to have been their conscience alone which caused them to say this. Yet certainly, the fear of sin didn’t prick their conscience. Nor did the thought of freedom from sin restrain them. What was it, then? ‘They went out and planned how to catch Him in His words.’ If anyone attempts to shut off a stream of running water by erecting some sort of blockade, the water will burst through and create a new path in another direction. Similarly, the priests’ frustrated evil intentions discovered other avenues for themselves.”14
Verse 16b-17: They said, “Teacher, we know you are an honest man. We know you teach the truth about God’s way. You are not afraid of what others think about you. All people are equal in your eyes. So tell us what you think. Is it right to pay taxes to Caesar or not?”
Speaking of uninvited guests trying to flatter their way into a wedding, now we have an example of it in the arrival of the Herodians who will attempt to trick the Divine King’s Son who had just told a story about His own wedding feast. Here we have a very interesting series of confrontations. First, the Pharisees joined by the Herodians are asking the Messiah a “political question” which He answered with great insight and skillfulness. It is strange that the Herodians were asking this question, because from the time of Ezra they were exempt from paying taxes. We read, “I want you men to know that it is against the law to make the priests, Levites, singers, gatekeepers, Temple servants, and other workers in God’s Temple pay taxes. They don’t have to pay taxes, money to honor the king or any customs fees.”15
But Jesus represented the average person to them. He was the champion of the peasant class. And they were not covered by Ezra’s edict. They are the ones who complained to the prophet Nehemiah, “We have to pay the king’s tax on our fields and vineyards. But we cannot afford to pay, so we are borrowing money to pay the tax.”16 So, here was Jesus’ opportunity to stand up for the poor and underprivileged, many of which followed Him and had been healed by Him. So the question was, would the Nazarite from Galilee take the bait?
One anonymous early church writer has more to say on this incident: “The priests viewed themselves as patterns of the messianic hope. Yet if they went out alone, questioning Christ, no one would believe them. Everyone would know that the Pharisees were Christ’s enemy. He had already spoken to the question of whether it was lawful to give tribute to Caesar. So they joined to their party the Herodians. The witness of enemies is always judged carefully, especially if it is true, since what is suspicious is judged doubly. The Pharisees did not wish to question Christ through the Herodians. But they had a common enemy, Christ. Both parties held Christ in great suspicion. Yet each, being suspect themselves, were afraid that they might not be able to indict Christ. An enemy in the open is far better than one hidden from view. For while the first may be feared, He is easily dealt with. The second, since He is unknown, may prevail. Therefore they sent Him disciples, as if still less known and less suspect, so that they might deceive Him easily and stealthily, or, if caught, they would at least embarrass themselves.”17
Even though his work is polemic, one German Rabbi tells of another incident where such messengers were sent to Jesus in order to fool Him into going with them so He could be arrested. It says: “At length they all resolved to send messengers to Yeshua, saying among themselves, ‘It may be that by the help of the Lord we will snare Him, bring Him judgment, and condemn Him to death.’ Therefore they sent Ananias and Achasias, most honorable men of the lesser Sanhedrin, who went and fell down before Yeshua in adoration, thereby increasing his wickedness. Therefore, thinking that they were sincere, He received them with a smiling face and appointed them leaders of His wicked flock. Then they began to appeal to him: ‘Look, the leading citizens of Jerusalem have sent us ambassadors to you, praying that you would agree to come to them, for they have heard that you are the Son of God.’ Then said Yeshua, ‘What they have heard is true, and look, I will do all that you ask, but upon this condition: “That all the senators of the greater and lesser Sanhedrin, and those also who have defamed my nativity, will come forward and worship me, receiving me even as servants receive their lords.” The messengers, returning to Jerusalem, ‘We will do all that He asks.’ Therefore, the men went again to Yeshua and declared that they would do whatever He desired. Then Yeshua said, ‘I will go with you at once.’”18
While parts of this story may be bogus, there is no reason to doubt that such an effort was initiated and that these two men were the one’s involved, and as such, earned a noble reputation among the Pharisees and Sanhedrin. Nevertheless, they were no match for the personification of wisdom, Jesus of Nazareth.
1 Flavius Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews, op. cit. Bk. 15, Ch. 9:3
2 Ibid. Bk. 19, Ch. 6:2
3 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Pesachim, folio 57a
4 Psalm 5:9
5 Ibid. 55:21
6 Proverbs 29:5
7 Job 32:21-22
8 Malachi 2:0
9 See the Mishnah, op. cit. Fifth Division:Kodashim, Tractate Hullin, Ch. 12:1; Babylonian Talmud, Seder Kodashim, Masekhet Hullin, folio 139a; Ibid., Seder Mo’ed, Masekhet Bezah, folios 24a & 25a
10 Flavius Josephus, Wars of the Jews, Bk. 5, Ch. 4:4
11 Yohassin, The Book of Lineage, p. 63
12 Matthew 21:23
13 Ibid. 21:41
14 Incomplete Work on Matthew, Homily 42
15 Ezra 7:24
16 Nehemiah 5:4
17 Incomplete Work on Matthew, ibid.
18 Toldos Jesu, Ch. 1, p. 8